CHAPTER 6 — Disaster on Ruweisat
Disaster on Ruweisat
For the first two weeks of JULY 22 NZ BN played an active part in the battle of EGYPT on the EL ALAMEIN front. Then on the morning of JULY 15 after a successful attack the BN was involved in a disaster On RUWEISAT RIDGE ….
22 Battalion war diary
‘They won't come in hundreds, boy, but in bloody thousands. The air will be full of ‘em. We're too small and we can't retreat. All we can do is kill off as many as we can before we're killed off ourselves.’ This, in confident, cheerful undertones, was the prediction of a veteran of Greece and Crete to a new reinforcement, Private Hewitt1 The two were on guard in case parachutists descended to attack large dumps in Tura Caves, near Maadi Camp, well behind the Alamein line. As the two looked up into the darkness, far to the west 22 Battalion was breaking through at Minqar Qaim.
No parachutists, no gliders, fell on Tura or Maadi. The two men, exploring round the cliffs and hoping to knock over a fox, disturbed large owls living in the rocks: ‘big bad-looking brutes three or four times as big as our moreporks that glared at us with horrible yellow eyes.’ Newspapers, heavily censored, arrived with ‘a big photograph of Freyberg, who had been wounded, with a caption saying something about “Old Soldiers never die.” But I don't think it cut much ice. We knew plenty of young soldiers who had died, and knew plenty more were going to die before this damned war was over.’
They went back to Maadi Camp booked for the Western Desert and the Alamein line—Hewitt was to take his place in 22 Battalion—and ‘I can tell you the old Naafi got a hammering that night. You would think the boys were all off to NZ instead of the battle. It was a different thing in the morning when we were wakened up in the dark and the effects of the beer had worn off. One poor devil put a bullet through his page 163 foot.’ A good breakfast (the last good breakfast ‘for the duration’ for so many of these reinforcements), a long line of ASC transport, 800 piling in, and away with the dawn, a few … firing off shots and an angry red-faced officer darting about in a truck attempting to nab the culprits.
‘It was a lovely day for a drive down the Nile and into Cairo where everyone was starting the day's work. The streets were pretty crowded, while those who had not left home looked out of the windows or came out on the balconies to give us a wave and a “thumbs-up” or “V for Victory” sign. The people of Cairo haven't much love for soldiers as a rule and I don't blame them, but that day they gave us a good hearing. We were really reaping the kudos due to the Div. So the cry went up “The Kiwi—Good Luck, Kiwi,” and we, a handful of dumb infantry, felt we were going forth to save the greatest city in Africa. As the convoy strung through the crowded streets the boys were in good form, some still firing shots and others leaning out with bayonets trying to tent-peg watermelons that were stacked up on the Wog carts.’
In the Nile Delta the cotton was in flower and the old fellahin were working away thrashing their corn. About 4 p.m. (pretty hungry, for the rations had gone astray) the reinforcements drove into Alexandria: ‘much nicer than Cairo, cleaner and fresher with beautiful gardens and palms. The people here again gave us a great hearing and all the most beautiful women in the world seemed to be waving and smiling on us. But they are a pretty mixed crowd, and the yarn goes that they all had swastika and Italian flags ready to give the other boys as good a welcome.’ Past the harbour fortifications and on to a succession of enormous dumps: wrecked planes, wrecked guns, and so on. ‘What a hell of a waste it all seems.’ In the Naafi at the Amiriya transit camp the reinforcements met 6 Brigade men fresh from the desert: ‘I have never seen so many bottles of beer with the tops off at one time.’
On the road again by daylight, ‘our belts tightened up a notch or two for breakfast. The road was now crowded with stuff going up. Convoys of artillery, tank transporters (huge trailers with many wheels) and trucks of all sorts. I'm afraid most of the convoys we saw were going up empty and coming back full!’page 164
Aussies, a good sight ‘with their hard dials and cheery grins’. A big notice read, ‘Are you prepared to act if ambushed on this road?’ (Some optimists, or pessimists, loaded their rifles here.) Through an Arab village to the old cry of ‘Eggs-a-cook; eggs-a-bread!’, then into the Western Desert proper, flat and stony and bare, passing ‘more and more trucks and tanks until they seemed to be everywhere. I saw more trucks that day than I have ever seen in my life. All over the desert in all directions there seemed to be trucks and transport parked.’ Flights of up to twenty Kittyhawk and Hurricane fighters swooped reassuringly overhead; sometimes a lone fighter skimmed a few feet above the desert, flashing past between 300 and 400 miles an hour. On over the flat, truck-dotted desert. A lone New Zealander working a huge bulldozer drew wisecracks about Public Works Department. ‘On we went slow but sure, and by evening, when we camped down among tanks and trucks in what someone called the third line of defence, we could hear the artillery hammering away and could see the flashes over the Western horizon.’
Guides, taking them next morning past a nose-down, tail-up Stuka, led the way to the New Zealand positions. ‘The noise of battle was getting louder all the time and we passed a big main dressing station or clearing station with its big red crosses all over the tents. The drone of planes brought a beautiful sight of 16 bombers—Bostons—wonderful as they roared overhead all silver in the sunlight and in perfect formation and so close it looked as if you couldn't put a pin between their wings. Behind, above and round them raced and dived the vicious little fighters, their escorts.’ Under a bit of a ridge was B Echelon, a sort of headquarters for battalion transport, quartermaster stores, and cooks' trucks. The New Zealand mobile canteen (the YMCA was really on the job at Alamein) turned up, and Hewitt bought ‘a large tin of pineapple to take up to the boys.’ Battalion transport took the reinforcements to Battalion Headquarters under another ridge a few feet high. Hewitt walked off past an anti-tank gun to his new home: No. 2 Section, 13 Platoon, C Company, 22 Battalion. ‘In the line the section is everything as you can eat, live and die together so to speak.’ He dug in smartly, ‘but I must say I got a hell of a shock when I first saw them; if ever men were done to a frazzle page 165 they were. They were thin, their eyes sunken, and what with no shave or wash for days (the water question was an appalling disgrace) they looked awful. No doubt the Div. had had a hard time….’
Yes, a hard time in the last fortnight. A restless fortnight of movement by day and by night, of digging in only to move and dig in yet again, short of water, shelled and bombed as the heat and the flies and the gritty dust increased while the two armies, in a land they loathed, circled like boxers in the first round of Alamein.
With the rest of the New Zealand Division 22 Battalion had retreated non-stop after Minqar Qaim to the Alamein line, to join 6 Brigade near Kaponga Box, the strongpoint the battalion had helped to make in the autumn of 1941. Stragglers, each party ‘absolutely the last survivors’, came in. After reorganising quickly, the battalion totalled up its Minqar Qaim losses: 10 killed, 33 wounded, 14 missing (prisoners of war). Some got heat prostration: ‘I vomited. Everything was spinning round and round. The remedy for this was salt water and bicarbonate of soda, and in 20 minutes I was as right as a bank.’ After all the alarms and excursions Frankie Flynn2 a cook with the bad habit of filling the burners while one might still be going, burned down D Company's cookhouse: ‘With a terrific Woomph! the whole outfit was enveloped in flames—blew up—terrific screams from inside the flames then a wild figure on fire leaped towards us….we rolled him in the sand and jacked him up.’
Panzerarmee, slowed but not stopped by actions at Minqar Qaim and Mersa Matruh, rolled on until it met the South African Division entrenched in the Alamein Box. Knocked by the South Africans, the attackers veered south, overran an Indian brigade, and pressed eastward along Ruweisat Ridge to the north of the New Zealanders. When Panzerarmee was halted by British troops on Ruweisat Ridge, New Zealand gunners fired from the southern flank. Ariete Armoured Division, swinging out on the panzers' right, got nipped off by the gunners and 4 Brigade. New Zealand Division was told to get up north of Kaponga Box to catch the rest of the Italians as they pulled page 166 back, and to annoy them in the flank. Fifth Brigade, toiling through soft sand, got there first, laid on an attack into the El Mreir Depression (unoccupied by the enemy), was bombed and Stuka-ed heavily, and advanced no further. Patrols went out in the night (6-7 July).
Fourth Brigade came up on the west, but before the two brigades could really come to grips with the enemy the Division was told to pull back (a truck blazing fiercely lit up most disconcertingly 22 Battalion's transport moving out), and both brigades went back several miles, abandoning Kaponga, which had never been fought for.
The Division, now deployed around Deir el Munassib, was told that 5 Indian Division (on the right) and the New Zealanders were to capture Ruweisat Ridge, about nine or ten miles to the north. So first of all, under shellfire, they made a short advance to Alam Nayil, the springboard for the attack on Ruweisat, six miles away. ‘This was a proper rag time one and only the Almighty knows how we managed it,’ wrote Colonel John Russell, ‘but when the light came we were only about half a mile out and within the hour we were all in our right places. Long enough to dig in and then move again— this time towards Jerry which was definitely good…. It was a most impressive sight to see the fellows advancing under shell fire with never a falter. A Tommy officer who was with me at the time said, “Well, I've seen that sort of thing on the pictures but I never expected to see it in real life….” ‘
Ground at Alam Nayil was held and occupied without close fighting. Three days of indecision on high passed. Twenty-second Battalion shifted positions several times. Each time weary, thirsty, dusty riflemen had to dig fresh slit trenches and positions. They were still digging away when the reinforcements from Maadi found them. ‘Did we,’ asks one 22 Battalion man, ‘move 17 times in a fortnight, or 14 times in 17 days?’
This indeed was the opening of The Hard Summer, with the Eighth Army sprawling like some battered and dazed giant boxer up against the ropes, almost all but the spirit itself beaten. But despite disasters and indecision and errors which will be discussed and debated in higher level histories, the spirit of the sorely tried British and Commonwealth troops was not extinguished page 167 among disillusionment, unnerving rumours and occasional near-despair. Here, simply by holding on, the Eighth Army won the first victory of Alamein. Those who burst through in October in triumph to sweep the Axis from North Africa should remember the veterans of July, including those who, through no fault of their own, received the immediate and bitter reward of the prisoner-of-war camp.
The picture may have seemed clear enough to higher authorities, but to the weary and wondering men in the ranks the two weeks of movement after Minqar Qaim were as incomprehensible as the doublings and trackings of a hunted animal. ‘It was all very baffling to us, but we took Tommy's [Captain Hawthorn's] word for it that each move was related and part of the game of chess we were playing with Jerry. So things went on and whenever it seemed that we must crack up altogether under the strain, a quiet day or a cool night would give us enough reserve of energy to carry on for a few more days.’
An excellent summary of this period is given in his prisoner-of-war diary by Gough Smith, who had served in the second Libyan campaign: ‘The food was plentiful enough: bully stew, M & V, tinned sausages, rice—but the water ration was not: we usually were too dry to eat all our rations. I cannot stress too strongly the terrific nervous and physical strain to which we were now subjected. It sounds dull and unimpressive on paper.’ The ration of three mugs of tea a day and a full water bottle, and the rest going to the cooks, was cut to three mugs of tea not full and about three-quarters of a water bottle, and the food was thick and heavy. The summer heat of the desert was trying, to say the least.
They had no bivouacs or shelter (lost at Minqar Qaim). ‘As our movements from now on were almost continuous and every stop meant digging in, more often than not we dug in three times a day.’ The desert was far more rocky than sandy, digging was invariably hard, most of the movements were under shelling and occasional bombing, and turns had to be taken on guard duty at night. ‘One's limbs were heavy and languid. Each cup of tea eagerly awaited was tossed straight down, not seeming to reach one's stomach but to be sucked up by the body on the way down. We seemed to make light enough of it all and to be able to joke and laugh over our woes, and it page 168 was not until our reinforcements arrived some 10 or 12 days later that we realised into what a pitiful physical plight we had come…. I do wish to make it clear what strain we were under and also what a fine spirit prevailed through it all…. The New Zealanders could always rise to an occasion and that kept us cheerful and firm throughout our troubles and the stupid, conflicting, lying pep stories with which we were pestered.’
One of the troubles of this period was that the men were not given sufficient authentic news, and rumours and weird stories abounded. Even the long-suffering Orsler was writing home: ‘Browned off, browned off, that's what everyone's talking.’ Another original member of the unit was writing: ‘We're like the tikis with their tongues hanging out—so b—y dry.’ In fact, the pipeline from Alexandria to the front now supplied the equivalent of the population of Wellington. The limited amount of water coming forward was enough, provided it was distributed correctly, but at this time there are indications that the water was not well distributed throughout the battalion. There were delays in distribution (often the enemy bombed water points when trucks had congregated together), and the preciousness of water was not always realised and sometimes abused by more comfortable troops just out of the danger zone. Little consolation can be taken from the fact that the enemy, with more than twice as far to bring water, suffered much worse troubles.
When the new slit trenches had been dug, the news came of a three-mile move back in the night. That night a party, including sappers, under Lieutenant Riddiford, went out to decide if an enemy minefield a mile away was alive or a dummy. The engineers, who were lightly armed, were assured they would not be left behind in an emergency. They found the minefield (somewhat hampered by the RAF dropping flares which silenced ‘the Italian chatter, movement and arias’). The mine-detectors failed to work. On the way back to Battalion Headquarters the patrol passed, as one man wrote, ‘a pleasantly formidable array of British tanks … the first I had seen since Matruh. Checking of minefields and the presence of tanks seemed to add up. We were all sick of running away and knew that with a little armour we needn't do it. Front-line soldiers in their innocence are notoriously optimistic.’
Next day, 14 July, was ‘a terrible “day of rest”: heat, thirst, smell of dead. Everyone sprawled about longing for sunset.’ The battalion dug in again before sunrise and hoped for a quiet day; everyone was thirsty, and a soldier wrote: ‘I didn't think I would ever have come down to licking secondhand blankets but I got a little dew off them and thought it worthwhile.’ The burnt-out remains of enemy trucks and guns were scattered near the battalion, and scrounging parties went out for water, page 170 sticking bayonets into radiators and any tins and drums lying about, or shaking water bottles ‘alongside stinking shallow graves, just a heap of stones or a sandbag or two over the body. We found tins of biscuits, grenades and rifles, Spandaus, Bredas and ammo of all sorts, tins of oil and God knows what else, but never a drop of water.’ The shelling began again, not so close this time, but the heat was as bad as ever and inescapable— blankets propped up for shade would have drawn Stukas. One or two men made patches of shade with bits of cane baskets (for carrying ammunition) picked up round the broken guns. In any case the skies opened about lunch-time: ‘the ominous roar and rumble of bombs fairly falling out of the sky and then a hell of a row as we all opened up at a flight of Stukas: the loud bang-bang of the Bofors guns, the rattle of the LMG and the crackle of rifle fire. They soon passed out of sight and all was quiet again.’ Men lay about, listless, thirsty, sweating in what shade they could find, until in mid-afternoon they heard that the attack would be on—no doubt about it this time—in the approaching night.3 ‘Late in the afternoon Tommy told us that we were going into a grand attack that night. Everything down to the last detail had been thought out, it was going to be a roaring success. The Division would sweep in, in a silent midnight march, dislodging the enemy from Ruweisat Ridge and link up with the Indians and Aussies to wipe Jerry completely.’
Extra water arrived with the evening rations, and ‘I felt ready for anything. The extra water cheered everyone, a whole extra German watercan (about 41/2 gallons) to each section, page 171 though as Joe Bunny said they were fools not to have given it out sooner instead of letting us all get into such a mess.’ In the fresh night air the men set about preparing for their attack confidently.
Dusk came down over the desert. Twenty-second Battalion, without its promised rum ration and now under Major Hanton, moved up towards the start line and the six-mile plod through enemy country to near Point 62, in the blackness on Ruweisat Ridge. A long attack indeed, a task which would have taxed the strength of even fresh troops. This trying distance would have been impossible for Colonel Russell, whose feet had been troubling him lately (‘Bad news. The boys reckoned he would be hard to replace,’ wrote one of his men), and already Jack Hargreaves was driving the Colonel back to hospital, where on 16 July he wrote home: ‘… the absolute devil… Col. Christie4 who is looking after me is confident that he will turn page 172 me into a marching soldier in a week or two so things aren't too bad. But it almost broke my heart as it looked as if things were really going to start in the right direction for a change.’
The battalion would go in 300 riflemen strong. They would not lead the attack but follow on, mopping up, about 1500 yards behind 21 and 23 Battalions. C Company would be forward on a wide front and the two other companies hard behind, B Company on its right rear and D Company on the left rear.
Anti-tank guns, thirty-six in all (six-pounders and the two-pounder infantry anti-tank guns), were intended to follow close behind 22 Battalion, but in the darkness during the forming up the guns, which were distributed across the front in various places, did not join up. Only the four six-pounder guns under Mick Ollivier5 were with 22 Battalion when the fateful dawn broke.
Fifth Brigade had a lane 4000 yards wide between 4 Brigade on the left and the Indian brigade on the right. Fifth Brigade, with 850 riflemen, was about to attack on a 1000-yard front, leaving a 3000-yard gap between it and the Indians, a gap which would be scoured out (in theory) by British tanks (2 Armoured Brigade) at dawn. The British tanks also were to assist the anti-tank guns in protecting 5 Brigade's right flank, where 22 Battalion would be digging in. That was the plan.
A low-flying plane, flashing navigation lights on and off, flew over the start line dramatically as the attackers moved off, and roared straight towards Ruweisat Ridge, drawing tracer and flares and roughly indicating enemy strongpoints in the distance. Many infantrymen believed that this plane signalled the advance to begin. Silently the 550 riflemen of 21 and 23 Battalions pushed ahead into the darkness. It was 11 p.m. Then 22 Battalion (‘hearteningly orderly and resolute looking,’ their Brigadier wrote) went forward in light fighting order of rifle and bayonet, Mills grenades and sticky bombs. Private Hewitt entered his first attack:
‘It was all quiet and orderly, we just trudged along over the sand. I can't say I was very excited or even very scared. One felt that one had been at that sort of thing all one's life. As we moved in closer the Jerries and Ites started up the odd bursts page 173 of machine gun fire as if they were a bit uneasy about things. Then the fire became more prolonged and after a few flares had been put up they started giving us all they had. Big mortars came whistling over to land with nasty bumps and shattering explosions beside us in the dark, while at times the night was lit up with flares and tracers from different types of shells and bullets, also a burning truck or two.’
Fighting began at midnight and continued here and there until past 4 a.m. With the first crash of fire, coloured flares and tracer slashed the darkness. Soon the uproar in front increased with hoarse New Zealand shouting and frightened cries, and as the companies came on to the fringe of the first fallen outposts, they clearly heard the old familiar ‘Mamma Mia!’ from stricken Italians. ‘I don't blame them either, it must be bloody awful to have to face a night attack.’ Enemy guns and mortars reached out blindly into the night, ‘overs’ cracked down to send dust and fragments of rock flying, and Hewitt, jarred by a near miss, found ‘it was nice to hear Joe's quiet voice call to me out of the darkness and ask if I was all right. Next instant there was a terrible crack as a shrapnel shell exploded in the air over the front of our section and it was then my turn to enquire after their health.’
As the battalion progressed behind the attackers, past the moaning and crying wounded (mainly Italian) whom the stretcher-bearers would find, the ominous noise of tanks could be heard, first from the right flank and then passing across the line of attack. These were thought to be British tanks. They were not.
‘We were moving forward in slow easy stages spending waiting time on our stomachs while mortar landed about us … The Battalion commander insisted on halting the Battalion each time with the word “Stanna”….”
Suddenly ‘machine gun bullets came zipping past our ears. That put the wind up me all right. I hated the sound of those bullets, but can laugh now when I think of myself and old Jack Scully6 who was in front of me; how we walked along with our heads instinctively bent down as if we were trying to keep off the rain!’
Plodding on mile after mile, one man, Gough Smith, notes page 174 how he grew uneasy, feeling ‘that the enemy retreating before us were leading us further and further into a trap. We passed abandoned guns and tanks. Nothing was destroyed, we merely plodded on….’ He felt the tank crews might be lying in hiding, waiting to follow up and attack at daylight. But most men who glimpsed the outline of tanks would have taken it for granted that they were British.
The battalion now began running into more prisoners and small isolated groups from the forward battalions. Even on a night like this came a wry tinge of humour. ‘Shorty’ Jury7— ‘one of those blokes who, when doing rifle exercises, gives one the impression that either they or the rifle are trying to climb one another’—stopped by a group of men ‘with what then must have been the smallest prisoner ever, and after an inquiry as to what he had, and the usual “Ruddy so-an’-so”, he shoved off—literally—just moved forward expecting the bloke to read his mind. There was an agonised grunt as the bayonet prodded, and Shorty took after his charge like a man in for the polevault.’
‘Challenges and password (Speights) were much flung about,’ notes Roy Johnston.8 ‘We could hear no sound of attack on our left flank. The right seemed quiet too. The impression was that whether by design or otherwise the attack was converging. There were flares going up on our left flank. In due course we were advised back that they were success flares. Our forward march was continuing but slowing. We saw enemy dead and some of our own. The men were tired and many were sleeping every time they went down. It continued that way all night— challenges, password, prisoners going back—occasional flares on our left—“success signals”.’
Hewitt's section had passed ‘odd trucks, guns and even a tank or two and we heard someone calling in the darkness “Are you there Kiwi? Are you there Kiwi?” It could have been a cunning Jerry, anyhow no one answered him. Suddenly I stumbled on a huddled form in the darkness and Jack Scully said “See if he has any field glasses or a Beretta,” so I rolled page 175 him over thinking he was dead and a horrible groan came from the poor brute and he felt all soft and warm.’
So it went on until the battalion had covered about six miles (some believe more9), and ‘there seemed to be doubt developing as to our position,’ says Johnston. ‘[We] were a little bit uneasy about things, also there was a machine gun firing a stream of multi-coloured tracers across the way we had come.’ ‘Then a dog barked at us out of the darkness,’ adds Hewitt. ‘There was something foreboding about the damned dog plus the machine gun that kept firing unmolested on our flank.’
Here Major Hanton was ordered to extend his battalion over a 1200-yard front facing north, and to contact 23 Battalion, 700 yards ahead. The Brigadier, on a carrier driven by Couchman, came hurrying past: ‘Hurry up and dig in before light, boys.’ Behind the battalion, in the direction it had come from, several posts now began firing. A rumble of tanks from the left flank was reported.
‘Dawn found us on a slight feature looking down to a shallow basin … in daylight we moved into the basin. We were halted. We were told to dig in,’ Johnston continues. The time now would be about 5.15 a.m. ‘No one could inform us as to our front, or direction of anticipated counter-attack. We were told to dig in anywhere. The men were being very philosophical about it all but there was confusion. Soldiers trained … to do … what they were told “dug in anywhere” … there were but limited fields of observation and fire. Short distance to the front of our advance lay a small escarpment’—the almost imperceptible rise that was Ruweisat.
‘Those with shovels and picks,’ writes Hewitt, ‘started digging while the “diggers” who had nothing to dig with built up rough little shelters of stone. I had a few rocks in front of me and even one or two on each side which was better than nothing. Suddenly there was an ear-splitting crack and a fiery projectile flashed past a few feet above ground and got a direct hit on a truck in front of us which promptly went up in flames. page 176 [A brief duel with a six-pounder anti-tank gun begins] while all we could do was to lie low, as the shells just seemed to be skimming our heads. The noise was appalling, it seemed to strike through one's ears into the very brain.’ George Tosh10 was shot dead. Gough Smith, like everyone else, ‘never thought of our being captured. Our tanks would appear in a moment, or our guns would open up, more anti-tank guns would appear. Something must happen.’ It did.
The tanks, thought to be eight altogether, advanced on to the doomed 22nd, one group coming from the south towards the battalion's western flank, the other swinging to the east. They made shrewd use of natural cover, the early, misty light, and a dust haze. Ollivier's six-pounders opened up, but the four guns were overwhelmed in a matter of minutes, while the startled riflemen (many of whom at first mistook the indistinct tanks for the expected British armour) lay low, or tried to open a brief, hopeless small-arms fire from open ground or from scarcely begun slit trenches.
A furious, impotent Hewitt ‘had never had one single lesson in recognition of tanks of any sort. I had once seen a German tank in Maadi and had wanted to go over and have a good look at it, but was told to pay attention to the lesson in hand which happened to be a new method of changing step on the march by an ex-Christchurch dancing master.’
He describes the end of his battalion: ‘It was all very bewildering to have tanks coming in from the rear and they now had their machine guns going all the time to keep us down. As I said before I had a few stones in front of me but none behind me, and I can tell you I felt pretty bare and exposed in that quarter! One platoon on our right that was near a bit of a ridge got up and made a run for it, they had of course to run a hell of a gauntlet of machine-gun bullets, and it was pretty grim to see these men running with dust being kicked up all round them as they fell or dived to the ground and then up and on again.’ These were Keith Elliott and his men, and as they began running men shouted: ‘What the hell are you running for—they are our tanks.’
‘The tanks having knocked out our guns came rumbling and page 177 clanking towards us with nothing to stop them…. We could do nothing but keep hoping some of our own tanks would turn up to the rescue…. A big Mark IV was only about 70 yards off me by this time and I was feeling like a fly in a web or Bob Semple's wheelbarrow, and wondering what the hell to do next…. Some of our chaps were right under the damned monster, and I can still see clearly the silly little bits of white paper they waved for a white flag. Then all seemed to rise up out of the desert with their hands up.’
The men, numbed and dazed (‘It was a possibility we had not thought of’: ‘I think we all felt rather silly and self-conscious’: ‘the horrible shock of that moment when the first of our chaps leapt out of their holes with hands up’), were rounded up quickly, for the Germans ‘were in a great hurry to get us out of it.’ One tank commander said ‘with the best Conrad Veidt English: “For you my friends, the war is over.”’ Another, sitting up on the turret, looked ‘cool and efficient with his ear-phones still on his helmet and an eagle and swastika on his right breast.’ Some riflemen had been escorting back about thirty Italian prisoners, but ‘the boot was on the other foot, the Ites now helped line us up and they didn't fail to see the joke.’ Fourteen officers and 261 other ranks were now ‘in the bag’, including four wounded who were considerately treated. Apart from these prisoners, the whole of the Ruweisat action had cost the battalion one killed and eighteen wounded (two of whom died later). Several men, including Major Hanton, were roughly handled when they refused to give up personal possessions, yet such treatment was exceptional, and ‘a friendly Italian sergeant showed great approval of a photo of June and the kids.’
Now the sudden bewilderment was ending, many a man realised and continued to realise bitterly that ‘It was a humiliating and disgusting sight. Someone somewhere had let us down badly.’ Shepherded by the half-dozen tanks, the prisoners were on the point of moving off when a German called sneeringly: ‘It's a long way to Tipperary!’ Back came the defiant reply, half sob, half snarl: ‘It's a longer way to Cairo, you bastard!’ As the captives trudged off through the dust, the sun came over the horizon.page 178
On a slight rise on the far right flank of the battalion 11 Platoon, commanded by Sergeant Keith Elliott, saw four tanks swinging round to the east. Infantry were running behind them, and about the time when the startled onlookers began identifying white crosses on the tanks, the firing started. Elliott, although wounded across the chest, cried out to his platoon to move 400 yards ahead to the semi-cover of a slight ridge.11 Swiftly the three sections (led respectively by Corporals Garmonsway,12 West13 and Staines14), eighteen men in all, reached cover in time to see the four tanks close in from the east on 12 and 10 Platoons and march them off at a smart clip to the west.
Moving another 400 yards north to a second small ridge, the platoon saw New Zealand troops and, after Elliott's chest wound had been dressed, took up a position on their far right (castern) flank. Here the platoon came under the command of Lieutenant Shaw15 of 21 Battalion. A distressed lance-corporal appeared and said that his officer and batman were lying out in front, the officer with an eye shot out and bleeding badly. Elliott, leaving Corporal West in position, went out with Garmonsway's and Staines's sections. They were soon under fire from a post about 500 yards ahead, and Garmonsway on the right flank was held up by more firing from the east. Elliott ordered Garmonsway to press home an attack in that direction.
Elliott now began his own attack ahead, the first of a series of charges which won the Victoria Cross, five enemy strongpoints and some eighty prisoners. With the sergeant were only three men (everyone else was more than fully occupied as it was): Lancaster,16 Jones,17 and Smith.18 As they closed in to within 50 yards of the first post ahead, the eleven Italian defenders signalled surrender. While they were dismantling an page 179 anti-tank gun and some machine guns, they were fired on by another post 100 yards directly ahead and from yet another a little to the right and further on. Smith was now sent back for reinforcements. Elliott, Lancaster, and Jones captured the next two posts ‘fairly easily’. The three men now had about fifty prisoners. They set about dismantling and wrecking more enemy weapons.
However, from the north-west, from a gently rising slope, fresh fire was directed at them. Shepherding their prisoners again with them, the three New Zealanders advanced against this fourth post over 100 yards away. The attack was well under way when another stream of fire burst from yet another direction, from behind and from the west about 200 yards away.
Leaving Lancaster and Jones to attend to matters in front, Elliott on his own dashed towards the new threat from the west, but was forced into cover alongside an abandoned water truck. From there he sniped at the defenders until all were on the point of surrender, except the machine-gunner who, sticking to his gun and keeping the deserted truck under fire, succeeded in wounding Elliott in the thigh. Elliott recovered from the shock of this wound in time to see a sniper on the escarpment hampering Jones and Lancaster. He fired at and winged this sniper, and then, turning to his own pressing problems, dashed to a small hummock, threw a grenade and charged, eliminating the machine gun and its faithful operator and taking about fifteen prisoners.
Weak from his wounds (another bullet had creased his knee— his third wound—and furthermore he was fresh from hospital after a bout of malaria), Elliott rejoined Jones (now wounded) and Lancaster in time to help wipe out the fifth and final post. With their captives (including two German medical officers and several German other ranks) they made their way back slowly to Corporal West's position, where Garmonsway and his party, in a spirited second front of their own which won Garmonsway the DCM, had silenced three machine-gun nests and taken a German officer and a sergeant, two Italian officers and sixty Italian other ranks. By noon 11 Platoon's tally was 140 prisoners and perhaps thirty killed and wounded.
Indian troops were now spreading out over ground ahead. Elliott was taken away to an Indian dressing station.page 180
The infantry had carried out their task of taking Ruweisat Ridge, but without the support of tanks19 or anti-tank guns could not be expected to hold their positions against the swift and aggressive action of the German tanks. The eight tanks which overran 22 Battalion were those of 15 Panzer Division, which had not been located before the battle; the assault had passed through the area in which they had been laagered. Moving to get out of the way when they realised that the Italian positions had been carried and that they were isolated, they ran into 22 Battalion before it could deploy or dig in. Perhaps even that would not have mattered if the anti-tank guns, which had been ordered to move with and behind the battalion, had been in their correct position.
Twenty-second Battalion accordingly suffered the consequences. The unit did not suffer humiliation and captivity gladly, and the bitterness of the Ruweisat men against their senior officers and the Army in general lives on still today. As it was, the captives who trudged off into long, bleak years of hardship and captivity would be denied even the cold comfort that their fate had served as a warning to other New Zealanders. Later that very day 19 and 20 Battalions (and a week later 24 and 25 Battalions) shared the same grim fate in the Division's darkest hour.
The prisoners, after being lined up and searched hurriedly, were marched through the heavy sand for one and a half hours before the first brief halt was called, and suffered ‘thirst and fatigue such as I had never known’. Some when captured had a few drops of water left in their bottles; others had none. ‘If only they would give us a mouthful of water—our mouths were dry and tongues were beginning to swell. I for one drank water out of the radiator of an old [derelict] truck. The water was rusty but what did that matter it was at least liquid.’ An old groundsheet was rigged up over one man who was ‘in a very bad way’ through thirst; at least he would have a little shade. Another man hastily buried his wife's letters in the sand: ‘Better left in the sand of the desert I thought than in the hands of page 181 the enemy.’ Searching the captives again, a German intelligence officer found, but did not confiscate, a song book.
‘Has it the “Siegfried Line” in it?’
‘I am sorry, but you won't be hanging any washing out on the Siegfried Line, but we will be hanging ours out on the Alexandria Line.’
The march resumed for another one and a half hours. ‘Many of the boys half crazed were behaving badly, rushing up to every Jerry and beseeching him for water.’ One man tried to stop trucks on the road. Another fainted. Men don't know how they made the last two miles. ‘I began to have visions and imagined that someone was holding a cup of water to my lips. I would come-to with a start to find my lips pursed as though in the act of drinking.’ Trucks arrived (the men got about half a pint each of petrol-tainted water) and took them to the Daba prisoner-of-war cage (British built), and their first food for twenty-four hours: three ounces of biscuit and half a mug of water.
Next morning they were herded forty to fifty into each lorry and guarded by grinning and vindictive Senussi and Italians. ‘I now had begun to feel a hatred for my enemy.’ The Germans had been reasonable. The prisoners were taken past Mersa Matruh, Sidi Barrani, and Tobruk to the insanitary, overcrowded Benghazi cage, ‘The Palms’: hunger, lice, dysentery. Dick Bunny, who had once belonged to 13 Platoon C Company, wrote: ‘There was no room for any exercise and we just lay under the palm trees and gazed at the blue sky above and the stars twinkling at night, thinking of the space and the freedom that was in the heavens above.’ In November they were shipped to Italy, and later were taken to Germany.
At El Daba, when almost every man was too exhausted even to think of escaping, Captain ‘Brigham’ Young escaped; ‘a wonderful performance,’ writes a captive comrade, ‘as he had had no more water than the rest of us for the last 12 hours, that was nil.’ The whole of the battalion, captives and remnants alike, rejoiced in Young's escape, for somehow it seemed a symbol of defiance when all hope had gone. Another prisoner's tribute reads: ‘It was possible to escape that night. We were page 182 only 40 miles from our own lines but only one man had the guts to venture out, exhausted, thirsty and starving as he was; that was Captain Young. Good luck to him!’ ‘Brigham’ Young, when asked to describe his escape in detail, says he was ‘on the lookout for a chance to escape because
I had told my own men on previous occasions that it was a duty to escape if possible.
I could think of nothing worse than years in a prison camp.
I cannot take indignities lying down and would have despised myself had I not made the attempt.
The thought of my wife wondering and worrying.
I just had to do something.’
On the march stragglers who looked as if they were contemplating escape had been warned that if anyone began wandering away he would be shot. At El Daba, outside the cage, the officers were separated from the other ranks, but Young had removed his pips on the march. He says:
I waited until about half the other-ranks had been interrogated and put behind the netting. We were only about 20 yards from the guards' hut which appeared to be unoccupied. I wandered (casually, I thought and hoped) over to the hut and entered unobserved. Hanging on the wall was a water bottle full of coffee—I poured it into my own empty bottle and pocketed a small packet of biscuits lying on the table. I was relieved to get out and rejoin the others unobserved. Heartened by this success I wandered over a few minutes later to a small heap of kerosene tins (two high, I think) close to the guards' hut, and still appearing to be unobserved I lost no time in getting down behind them and hard up against them. I suppose my tensest moment up till then was waiting for a burst of machinegun or rifle fire had I been noticed. After a minute or two I felt safe and more relieved than I can tell. I felt that my best and safest course was to go to sleep, which I promptly did. Some time later, it was almost dark, a staff car drew up on the other side of the tins and someone got out—not six feet away. This woke me up. I remained there an hour or two longer. All was quiet save for two sentries, whose beat finished some yards away. I was facing south; the cage entrance and the sentries were to the left (east) of me.
I crawled away from the tins, perhaps 300 yards to the right. Now I could see neither the cage nor the sentries. That night I headed due south by the stars. Once I thought I had run into their lines—I think they were vehicles—soon after I started. I gave them page 183 a wide margin. I walked till daylight—an estimated 15 miles, maybe more. I wrapped myself round a small desert shrub for the day. The flies were annoying. A few planes overhead.
The next night I continued south for another 15 miles and it was the following evening, soon after I had started out, that I came across a number of damaged and abandoned Italian vehicles, and from the wreckage salvaged the welcome tin of meat extract which I opened with a pocket knife I still had. Soon after I encountered the Bedouins but before that I had my biggest fright: I saw two soldiers resting on their rifles and apparently looking at me—perhaps 100 yards away. I didn't move for some time and then started to move on. They kept looking and even, I could have sworn, turned their heads to continue watching me. But nothing happened and I moved on as quickly as possible. Obviously I must have been seeing things due to my tiredness, and I certainly didn't go closer to find out why they took no action. I was pleased to get away.
Then I saw objects in the haze in the distance but decided I was again fooling myself. But gradually they took shape, camels in charge of two Bedouins. One was menacing and covered me with his rifle from about 100 yards away. I sat down and didn't move. He continued to aim at me, all the time shouting. His companion was far more reasonable and friendly, and seeing I was unarmed, approached. He gave me three sweets and ran off and filled my empty water bottle; what a blessing! He waved his arm across an arc to the north and indicated to me that the enemy—my enemy— were there. He accepted my knife as a present, smilingly but a little reluctantly. I wonder if he still has it.
That night I walked south-east for ten miles to make sure I had gone round the enemy, and then due east for another ten miles, and was at dawn dismayed to find myself among a ‘B’ Echelon. This I think was on the edge of the Quattara depression. I was watching one vehicle down in the wadi when I saw two men facing me, perhaps 200 yards away, near another vehicle. I moved away and as soon as possible got down into the wadi and under a large bush. I had been there only a moment when I heard voices above, stopping and moving away. I assumed they were suspicious but not sufficiently so to make a detailed search.
That was my worst day. The flies were at their worst under that tree [sic] and with enemy vehicles around I had to keep quiet and out of sight. That night after dark I set out again with some trepidation. I heard voices in a number of directions but was soon clear away. I was very tired now and had to sit down and rest every half hour. I travelled north-east that night which I hoped would skirt the enemy and take me to our lines. But all the time I had the fear that we may have withdrawn a long way and that if so I wouldn't make it. The ground here was very uneven and I was stumbling forward. It was an effort to continue. About 3 am I supposed it was I missed falling into a trench by a foot or two. Immediately there page 184 was a hubbub and excited Italian shouting. I thought the best thing I could do was to pretend to be a German; knowing a little German and hoping they didn't I said a few words which together were meaningless, and stumbled on a little more quickly than before. I expected bullets to come whistling round but nothing happened. I was heartened now because I had hopes that I had come through their front lines and our own may not be far away. But I couldn't be sure. Soon I was startled by a challenge close by. I could see two figures but didn't hear what they said, or was too startled to take it in. They stood silently there. It was now or never and I advanced towards them. 25 Battalion sentries!
During his capture and escape Young had lost over one and a half stone; he was down to just under nine stone. He had no head covering against the summer sun except a handkerchief used as a hat occasionally in the daytime. He longed incessantly for a drink of milk (a curious desire, for he seldom touched milk) and thought longingly of an iced gin at the Maadi Club. ‘My inspiration was the satisfaction I would get of having achieved something worthwhile—and of making my wife happy. But it was certainly worth it and under similar circumstances I would risk it again.
‘My main thought was to get back to my battalion at any cost. Yes, I was determined. I prayed once or twice for the necessary strength to see it through.’20
3 One soldier writes: ‘It was a famous advice, difficult to remember exactly but impossible to forget. It ran: “The Australians on the right flank are putting in an attack. If the attack is successful, we shall attack. On the other hand if the Australian attack is not fully successful, we shall attack. If another British-Indian group does something else we shall attack. And if all these things don't happen we shall withdraw to a line 14 miles in rear.” The soldiers said “Why the … don't they just say we're going to attack and be done with it?” The statement became a pattern for army humour. [At this time men felt] the show was going badly. Men, without seeking to know all that had been at Tobruk, cursed South Africans because they could see the captured transport Jerry was using, and we were being shelled with our own [captured] twenty-fives. The infantrymen accepted it; that is all infantrymen can do; but the feeling was current that we were enacting a glorious Gafu.’ Another rifleman writes: ‘We were told the Jerries were in a hell of a mess from lack of water and were too weak even to bury their dead and that the RAF were going to bomb hell out of them until 11 pm when we would go in and clean him up easily. It all sounded very nice on paper.’
9 In any night attack, understandably enough, some always feel they have advanced too far. After capture, the prisoners were hurried due west, below 4 Brigade on Point 63, and were seen by members of the brigade (‘They're only Eyeties anyhow,’ said the man behind a distant machine gun in 4 Brigade); therefore the unit could not have advanced further than it was supposed to, and this is confirmed by movements of Sergeant Elliott's platoon, records of 8 Panzer Regiment, and 23 Battalion's positions.
19 This is no consolation to 22 Battalion, but critics may care to consider that a week later the British 23 Armoured Brigade burst right into the German lines in the vicinity with eighty tanks; only eight tanks came out.
20 Another man captured at Ruweisat Ridge, Sergeant R. J. G. Smith, who twice tried to escape on the way, was taken to Mersa Matruh to repair the truck of an Italian padre (‘a man of sterling character’). German mechanics would say: ‘I wonder if the padre's truck is still running?’, to which the stock reply was: ‘Even if it isn't running, I bet the padre is.’ Finding Smith had been in Crete, two veteran German soldiers entertained him with ‘Stuka juice’ (any strong liquor). Choosing his time, and storing away provisions and water, Smith escaped. After many hardships, when water ran low, he placed a small stone under the tip of his tongue, sucked it constantly, but was tortured with thoughts of water: ‘I would think of a thousand rivers running to waste in the sea, all the freshwater lakes with perhaps people nearby not even noticing them or attempting to drink them dry. I couldn't understand why they didn't want to put their heads in all this water with their mouths wide open just drinking all the time. I thought of my old sergeants' mess with bottles of cool beer stacked up in dozens, standing there doing nothing, with nobody drinking them. Unbelievable that such things could be….’ After 17 days and 18 nights Smith, in a state of collapse, walked into an Italian bivouac on the extreme southern flank of the Alamein line. Maintaining that escape in the desert is worse than being adrift at sea in an open boat, he says an escaper's only friend is his two feet, and he wholeheartedly agrees with these words of the aviator, Charles Lindbergh: ‘You never see the sky until you've looked upwards to the stars for safety.’